DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — At least four players and three staff members on Syria’s national soccer team have tested positive for coronavirus and are in isolation, a Syrian official said Tuesday.
The infections come amid reports of a surge in COVID-19 cases in the divided, war-torn country, where health care facilities and services have been badly hit during the nearly 10-year conflict. Many doctors and health practitioners have fled Syria.
Limited testing facilities and Syrian government control over pandemic statistics have led to concerns that the real number of cases is much higher than what’s being reported. Officially, there have been about 850 confirmed cases and 46 deaths in government-held areas, the majority of them registered since July. Syria’s pre-war population was 22 million but more than 8 million now live in areas outside of Damascus’ direct control.
Infected members of the national team include some star midfielders and strikers, including Mardik Mardikian and Mohammad Anz, according to the Facebook page of the Syrian Arab Football Association.
Muwaffaq Fathallah, a member of the Syrian Soccer Association, told The Associated Press on Tuesday the players were tested a day earlier on their way to Aleppo province for training. He said they were asymptomatic and the association said the infected members have been isolated.
The team’s last international game was last year, Fathallah said. They reached the qualification rounds for the World Cup in 2018.
After being slow to implement a lockdown, Syrian authorities have since eased restrictions amid deepening economic hardship. Tightening Western sanctions have also led to increasing poverty in government-controlled Syria.
After restrictions were eased in early June, there was a notable increase in recorded cases, mostly in the capital Damascus and its surrounding countryside. Dozens of cases were recorded in Aleppo and other government-controlled areas also.
In late July, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said official cases reported by the Syrian Ministry of Health increased by more than 100% in July, including over 270 cases of unknown origin “potentially indicating that community transmission is now widespread.”
The U.N. agency said the Ministry of Health reported 44 health care workers were among those who tested positive for the virus, calling it of “particular concern.” It also reported that humanitarian actors have been receiving unverified reports of additional cases and that in some areas health care facilities have been unable to absorb all suspected cases.
The government appears reluctant to reimpose a lockdown while the country’s economy unravels.
Rumors have swirled that the virus numbers reported mask a far more severe outbreak.
The deaths of half a dozen Islamic clerics in Damascus in one week in mid-July raised even more suspicion. Only one was known to have died from the virus but it wasn’t clear what caused the other deaths. A well-known Lebanese singer who resided in Syria also died of the virus in late July.
Social media groups have advertised rental oxygen tanks for home use as well as private home nurses for hire instead of resorting to what they said are overcrowded hospitals.
Syria in Context, a newsletter that follows Syrian affairs, reported on a message from a doctor in Damascus speaking about a shortage of tests while overwhelmed hospitals are sending mild cases away.
According to the newsletter, the director of the Bureau of the Deceased said there has been a “remarkable increase” in deaths caused by COVID-19 or similar respiratory diseases since July 10, without giving a number. It said those who died of the virus were buried in a cemetery in the Damascus countryside to avoid spreading the virus to residential areas.
In territories outside government control, there was also a spike in reported infections. In the overcrowded rebel-held bastion of Idlib in northwestern Syria, at least 36 cases were reported Aug. 3 by the lab that carries out the testing after a first cluster of patients was detected earlier in July among doctors in the enclave near the Turkish border. Those infections were discovered after more than two months with no recorded cases.
In northeast Syria, six infected cases have been reported and one death. All border crossings have been shut since July 13 to prevent the virus’ spread.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.